“Studio Wrestling,” which went on the air 60 years ago this month, wasn’t the first professional wrestling program on television in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t even the first local program to showcase the sport. “Wrestling at The Grotto” debuted in December, 1951 and ran on the Dumont Network’s WDTV, Channel 3. Matches were broadcast from the Northside’s Islam Grotto, where wrestlers had grappled for years.
There were other Dumont Network wrestling programs that ran from July 1948 to 1955 and strutted “Gorgeous George” Wagner, Argentina Rocco, Mildred Burke and Pittsburgh’s own Rudy Shemuga, who wrestled as Steve Novak. Pittsburgh was a hot, Top 10 television market back then, so showcasing the popular sport was important.
A few years after WDTV went dark, WIIC TV Operations Manager Sheldon Weaver reportedly introduced the idea of professional wrestling to fellow Channel 11 programmers and they were hooked. Sponsors were signed and the project was set to launch. Promoters Toots Mondt and Vincent McMahon, Sr. would be involved later.
On November 5, 1958 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that professional wrestling was going to originate from the WIIC Channel 11 studios on Saturday nights beginning in 10 days. Some 200 fans were urged to write the station for tickets to gain admission to the matches. Wrestlers such as Mr. Moto, The Great Scott, Killer Kowalski, Rocco and “Hillbilly” Calhoun were advertised as on their way.
On Saturday, November 15, 1958, Studio Wrestling hit the airwaves. Metropolitan Pittsburgh viewers had a choice of seven television stations at 6 p.m. Among the offerings: KDKA Channel 2 featured a talk show called “Small World,” WTAE Channel 4 featured Championship Bowling, and WIIC Channel 11 was headlined by Johnny Valentine taking on Aldo Venturi. According to newspaper ads, Valentine would compete again in December against Frank Townsend. Tokyo Joe and Ted Lewin were on the undercard.
The show’s theme song, John Philip Sousa’s “El Capitan” became iconic in many Western Pennsylvania homes.
Contrary to popular belief, it was Mal Alberts and not Bill Cardille who manned the first Studio Wrestling broadcast. Although Cardille was a fellow staff announcer and the first voice heard on WIIC when it debuted on September 1, 1957, he was busy with other local shows (Chiller Theater was still nearly five years away). And while Cardille would later tout “90 Minutes of Mayhem,” Studio Wrestling originally ran for one hour.
In late 1959, Studio Wrestling gained its biggest asset when 24-year-old Italian-born, Pittsburgh-raised strongman Bruno Sammartino was encouraged by promoters to enter the scene. Newly-married, the carpenter was wooed by the prospect of fame and fortune. He had just set a 535-pound bench press world record and began to train for a grappling career. Despite claims that his first victory was a 19-second folly against Dmitri Grabowski on December 17, Sammartino’s first recorded match was on November 21, 1959 against journeyman Miguel Torres. A win-loss record can’t be found; however, it’s quite certain that Sammartino was victorious in near-record time.
Sometime in 1960, Studio Wrestling expanded from 60 to 90 minutes. In 1962, Mal Alberts moved on and Cardille moved ringside, where he would remain until the duration of the program.
The Pittsburgh “Territory” and Studio Wrestling in particular were the launching pad to stardom for many legendary athletes, such as James J. Dillon and George “The Animal” Steele, among others. It also made household names of “Jumpin’” Johnny DeFazio, Chuck Martoni, Frank Durso, Joe Abby, Bobby “Hurricane” Hunt, “The Fighting Cop from Carnegie” Frank Holtz, Tony Marino “The Battman” and others. Even referees such Bucky Palermo, Andy “Kid” DePaul and Izzy Moidel were celebrities in their own right. The era of Studio Wrestling is still spoken of with the utmost reverence from those who watched the action and there active Facebook pages are dedicated to the subject.
In the early 70s, management changed and WIIC took more interest in the 6:00 p.m. Saturday evening newscast, so Studio Wrestling was moved to 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. and reduced to an hour. In May, 1973, Studio Wrestling moved to 1 p.m. for an hour on Saturday afternoons. During the summer, Major League Baseball broadcasts often interfered in wrestling’s waning years.
In June, 1974 the Pittsburgh Press signaled that Studio Wrestling was to be cancelled. A steady dip in ratings was the official reason. It had become syndicated to 10 markets, but alas (just like the Grotto program) almost nothing from the broadcasts were saved. Only a few clips, mostly misidentified from a similar program from Washington, D.C., remain. WPGH-53 saved the franchise and kept Cardille; however, that didn’t last long.
Studio Wrestling ran for a total of 16 years on WIIC, which became WPXI, but it still resonates in many a Pittsburgher’s heart.